Who are you calling an Islamist?

"My life and career", by Mehdi Hasan, "part 2"

It was Andy Warhol who remarked that one day we'd all have our fifteen minutes of fame. I'm now into my fifth day of online infamy - thanks to the blog, Harry's Place (as well as a blog on the Spectator). The former has devoted much time and energy, over five separate posts, to quoting selectively, and out of context, from various informal talks that I have given in recent years, in front of numerous British Muslim (and non-Muslim) audiences.

The end result? Commenters at Harry's Place have decided that I am an ally of "Andy Choudary" (I assume they mean Anjem Choudary, from the radical Muslim group, al Muhajiroun), that I come from a Hizb ut Tahrir "background" and that I'm a "raving Islamist bigot". One commenter says, "we are considering a misguided, arrogant, dangerous Muslim shit-head for a form of hate speech in the same genre as a Hitler rally, based on the Koran."

But consider this:

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who have written a piece entitled "There's nothing Islamic about a state" , as I did for the New Statesman in April, in which I concluded, with the words of secular Muslim professor Abdullahi An-Na'im, that "the Islamic state is a historical misconception, a logical fallacy and a practical impossibility"?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who challenge senior members of Hizb ut Tahrir in public debates, as I did with HT's Dr Imran Wahid in a debate on the future of European Islam in June 2006?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who believe not simply in parliamentary democracy but who passionately and publicly immerse themselves in the current campaign for the introduction of proportional representation via "AV plus", as I did earlier this month in the Vote for a Change campaign rally at Methodist Hall, where I shared a platform with Peter Tatchell and Polly Toynbee?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who chair and shape public debates on the future of the social-democratic centre-left, as I did at the annual Compass conference last month?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who tell an audience of Muslims that Islam is a "humanitarian" faith and insist that Muslim nations in the Middle East would be under an Islamic obligation to come to Israel's help were the Jewish state to suffer, God forbid, from a horrible natural disaster like an earthquake, as I did in a speech in February this year (a speech, incidentally, singled out for praise by former counter-terrorism minister Tony McNulty who was present in the audience that afternoon)?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who publicly denounce "those in our community who decry any collaboration any cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims, who describe all non-Muslims as kafirs whom we owe nothing to, whom we need not offer any help or charity to" as I did in a speech in February this year ("I want to disassociate myself and all of us here from such extremist Muslims," I said at the time)?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who chastise Muslim audiences for daring "to criticize the way this country is run.... complaining and whining and moaning about how we're treated" when "we don't bother to exercise our basic right to vote", and who urge British Muslims to be "an engaged and outward-looking community....politically and socially proactive", as I did in a speech in a north London mosque in October 2007?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who tell a Muslim audience that "nowhere in the Quran, when we read it properly, can we find any justification for violence against civilians, for indiscriminate attacks of terror against noncombatants, against women, against children. Nowhere!", as I did in a speech in Manchester in September 2007, called "Disconnecting Islam from Violence" (and, again, quoted out of context by my anonymous critics at Harry's Place)?

I have spent my entire life, from secondary school to university to my professional life as a journalist, encouraging Muslims to be moderate, and to integrate, rather than remain outside the mainstream of British society. And I have had innumerable stand-up rows with extremist Muslims who think I am not Muslim enough; as well as with aggressive atheists who think I am not liberal or secular enough. It is par for the course.

So, what did I say, back in February, prior to joining the New Statesman, that has sent one corner of the blogosphere into such an angry frenzy? In the section from the speech quoted prominently (and, once again, out of context) at Harry's Place, I seem to refer to atheists as "kafirs", as "people of no intelligence" and as "cattle". In fact, I am quoting from the Quran - where the word "kafir" simply means "non-Muslim" or "non-believer" and it is in this sense (in fact, in its atheistic sense), and no other, that I used it. I do, however, acknowledge that in the hands of a few Muslim extremists, the word has taken on more sinister connotations. Perhaps it is a time for a debate on the future of this term - or, alternatively, to reclaim it from the bigots and radical Islamists. The Quranic phrase "people of no intelligence" simply and narrowly refers to the fact that Muslims regard their views on God as the only intellectually tenable position, just as atheists (like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris) regard believers as fundamentally irrational and, even, mentally deficient. As for the metaphorical use of the word "cattle", that has no more pejorative charge than does the word "sheep" when applied by atheists to religious believers - plus, you will note that I also refer to unthinking Muslims as "cattle" in the same speech, which was addressed primarily as a critique of my co-religionists (as you can see here and here).

Thankfully, many of my closest non-Muslim colleague and friends over the years have recognized that I am neither an Islamist, nor an extremist of any kind - Jonathan Dimbleby, for example, has said: "Mehdi is a devout Muslim but is at all times entirely within the framework of liberal democratic society. He typifies the best of British."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.